This story was originally a short film I wrote for my MA course. It never got finished though, so I reinvented it as a short story. This one is actually quite short.
You are not alone.
Help is available.
Speak to a counsellor today.
Samaritans are available twenty-four hours.
The return of his search for effective suicide methods reads as above. This kind of help is not what he wants. If anything it makes him profoundly sad; he pictures a meeting in the glassy offices of Google’s headquarters, a meeting in which executives decide that for legal protection, and for the purposes of being publicly seen to do the right thing, this search result will appear first, so that the company will in no way be held responsible for someone taking their own life. A programmer had actually sat there and made this happen. That had been their job. This is the world he lives in.
But they don’t understand; no one ever understands. This is not real. It is just research. It is just pretend. It is all part of the plan.
He is made to scroll through a whole page of helpline numbers before he gets to what he wants.
Lethality of suicide methods.
A cutting and beautiful sentence. He finds a bar graph. Cold, dispassionate, beautiful statistical data. For Vincent Small, this is what the world needs more of: objectivity.
Case fatality is translated as percentage of people who successfully die in a suicide attempt:
Firearm – 82.5%
Drowning/submersion – 65.9%
Suffocation/hanging – 61.4%
Poison by gas – 41.5%
Jump – 34.5%
Drug/poison by ingestion – 1.5%
Cut/pierce – 1.2%
Other – 8.0%
A number of different factors govern lethality. The first is inherent deadliness. The second is ease of use. The third is accessibility. And the fourth is the ability to abort mid-attempt.
Somewhere, among them, calling out, is the perfect option.
In his head, it is all clean and immaculate, it is only in the deciding and executing that things lost their perfection.
He spends the next two hours reading case stories related to each method. Stories of people who tried to gas themselves in their car but only gave themselves permanent brain damage. Stories of people who tried to hang themselves but only broke their spinal cords and lived long lucid lives in wheelchairs. And happier stories, stories of people who got it right and gently slipped away into the places they wanted to be.
He makes notes, mind maps, diagrams, and then he calls his literary agent to talk it through.
– As usual, Vincent, you’re overthinking things. Just make a decision.
– I was thinking of a boat, out at sea. A disappearance, something mysterious, you know?
– Way too much.
– I want to make a statement, Clara –
– I’ve got paracetamol and chicken soup; that’s all we need.
Next there is the note.
He tries several different opening lines and hates them all. Whatever words he chooses, there are always better ones, always a better sentence, a better paragraph, a better page, a better book, a better writer.
He scribbles furiously, then crumples and tosses sheets into the plastic bin beside his desk. He inwardly chuckles at the realisation that even when crafting a fake suicide note he gets writer’s block, but he stops finding it funny after a second and finds it infuriating instead then punches the wall.
After thirty-five abandoned drafts of his now-you’re-sorry-I’m-gone masterpiece, he quits and tells himself it is better left to mystery anyway, better left for the shocked masses to interpret his untimely passing in whatever ways they will. The theories, the conjecture, the devastation, the eulogies; the idea of it all makes him hard.
He reaches for his phone and types a text to Jess, the woman he occasionally meets for casual sex and hasty departures thereafter. This time the words come easier to him, not least because he has sent a text just like this many times before and the phone readily predicts his every word.
He wishes suicide notes had predictive text.
– Hey you busy want to come over?
If he is going to die or at least be dead to the world, he figures he might as well get one last bang before his current self disappears. In this moment he prefers that his relationship with Jess has always been sporadic and flickery. This way he doesn’t have to pretend to want anything else from her other than sex. This is their understanding. They are nothing to each other except bodies to rub against when a lack of human warmth does things to their self-esteem.
He sends the message and watches the ticks turn blue and still she doesn’t reply. His erection is getting impatient; he grabs it and digs in his whitening fingernails. He knows if he beats the evil out of himself now he will be in no mood for her if she decides to come over. This is the dilemma of the hook up call: is it worth the waiting?
He browses the dark web for a while, reading more stories of horror suicide attempts and finding they help maintain his erection, until his phone buzzes with her reply.
One word rejection is something he knows well.
When Clara walks into the flat of her least favourite client she wonders if the unsettling cleanliness is an effort he has made on her behalf or if the sterile shine of the worktops is something he lives with all the time.
She looks at her reflection in the coffee table and speaks –
– Can we get this done quick? I have a dinner meeting with Hannah this evening and I like to be early for things.
Vincent Small sighs and begins the delicate arrangement of the mise-en-scene of his last known photograph. He has pictured this scene in his head and knows exactly how it should be. In his head everything is as it should be; in reality nothing is. He places various objects on the living room floor to make them appear scattered, then deliberates over the exact placement of a cushion on the floor. His agent tuts and checks her watch.
This has always been Vincent Small’s problem: he’s the imperfect perfectionist. He has always skirted around the edges of the club of genius without ever fully being allowed in. He can see how good he could be but cannot actually be it. All his limited talent has ever done for him is give him ambitions and dreams he will never be able to realise.
He settles on the placement of the cushion then speaks.
– I’ve been thinking about vomit.
– . . . Sure.
– Do we really need it?
– It adds to the scene, doesn’t it? You want this to be believable.
– But . . . I’m supposed to be overdosing. If I vomit it back up . . . You know? Does it work?
– . . . Maybe just a little vomit. You manage to keep down the ones that kill you. Okay?
– I mean . . .
– I already brought the chicken soup.
Vincent Small sighs and nods and goes back to carefully arranging the props. When he is ready, Clara sits him down on the couch and applies to his face the foundation she brought in her handbag.
Grey, all grey.
She quietly enjoys making her least favourite client look dead and cold, but wants mostly to get this over with so hurries, slaps him about in the process, and he takes it.
She talks him through the plan while she works –
– So, this is the story. You’d been working on your latest manuscript, a real magnum opus. It was pouring out of you. We’d been in dialogue about it, all very exciting. Then you stopped answering emails, calls, and because I was so eager to read the next draft of your earth-shattering work, I came over to your flat, called your landlord and he let me in. And there I found you, consumed by your own genius, taken tragically from us, much too soon. Then we await the phone calls from hungry publishers. If you want to stay in hiding, or come back in a few months, say you had a breakdown and shaved your head and went to live in Siberia or something, that’s on you.
– . . . I was thinking of moving to Wales. The countryside.
– . . . Lovely.
– Kind of can’t believe we’re actually going through with this.
– This is what you wanted.
– Hey, this was your idea.
– You’re the one who wanted immortality.
They set up the last known photograph and Clara snaps it.
Now all that is left to do is wait.
The newspaper stand opens at 5am. Vincent Small is there early, with his new haircut and clean shave. He is all alone, on the quiet wintry streets of Oxford. He cups his hands over his naked mouth and blows.
The newspaper merchant rubs his hands together as he arrives at his stall. He sees Vincent Small waiting. He does not recognise him. He holds up his index finger to indicate he will be ready in one minute. Vincent Small nods and puts his hands in his pockets, swivels on his heel, tries to quieten the flutter in his chest. He has never been so excited to buy the papers before. He pictures his face on the front page, the headlines of devastation, the sensationalisation, he’s gagging for it.
When the stall opens for business, he buys one copy of every national newspaper. The front page stories vary: celebrity scandals to lying politicians to climate warnings, the usual. He skims through each one, looking for his name.
His heart beats audibly in his chest and his hands shakily turn the pages. He searches for the tragic headline, for the image of his greyed face, the statement from his bereaved agent and fans.
He finds nothing.
He flicks through every news publication and finds no trace of his harrowing suicide. There is a story of an old woman painting her fence a garish colour and complaints from the neighbours; there is nothing about Vincent Small. He thrusts the newspapers back to the merchant and glares at him, as if demanding an explanation for the omission of his death.
The merchant, of course, has no answer.
When he gets home he searches the internet for any mention of his untimely passing. All he finds is a blog by a freelance writer.
Vincent Small Dead, How About That?
The writer of two semi successful smugly allegorical novels was found dead in his home, after an apparent overdose. This is just one of many unfortunate cases and is representative of a wider mental health crisis which continues to go unaddressed in this country.
The article continues to list statistics of suicides, with links to helplines.
You are not alone.
Help is available.
Speak to a counsellor today.
Samaritans are available twenty-four hours.
The page has eleven views and four comments. Each comment is from the same person, explaining how their click was accidental and they have no idea who this article is even about, sent four times.
Vincent Small is dead, and no one cares.
You have one new voice message. Tap to listen.
– . . . Vincent . . . It’s Jess . . . This feels so weird, talking to a person who isn’t here anymore . . . I just wanted to say some things to you, even if you can’t hear them . . . Went to your funeral today . . . Only five people there . . . Three of them left before the end . . . But . . . I mean . . . How could you do something like this? How could you be so selfish? . . . Maybe you thought I didn’t care about you . . . Maybe you thought I just saw you as a fuckbuddy . . . But you were more than that to me, Vince, much more . . . I guess I just didn’t know how to show you . . .
Vincent Small holds the phone to his ear, rigid, hearing everything he had secretly hoped to hear when he was alive.
It all means nothing now.
He wallows in his own watery self-pity for nebulous days, while people call his phone, mostly telemarketers who have not yet received the update that this number now belongs to the deceased, please remove. One more from Jess, saying sorry for everything. Also wrong numbers. He splays for days, inanimate, dumb, defeated, until an evening when something comes on the television which catches his attention.
The six o’clock news.
A beloved, world famous sci-fi writer has passed away. A nation, a planet mourns. The programme delivers a heartfelt obituary, with tributes from loved ones and fans all over. The writer’s son makes a speech at a packed funeral, describing the wonders of how magical his childhood was with such an imaginatively powerful man, a deity amongst mere mortals. The writer’s agent speaks into a camera and breaks down weeping before he can get through a sentence.
Vincent Small is sitting upright in his couch, his mouth held open, his fists tight.
Altogether, the segment lasts ninety seconds.
That is what he has been chasing his whole life: ninety seconds.
Even if the world did care about his dying, that is the most he would have got. Ninety seconds. Maybe his sales would have had a boost, maybe Clara would have cashed in, maybe he would have been called a misunderstood poet all along, but in the end, that is all he would have got from the world.
Ninety miserable seconds. That’s the best case scenario.
Vincent Small turns off the television. He gets up, and cleans his flat until his knuckles bleed.
Then he decides.
– You’ve really thrown yourself into your work, these last few months, Quentin. It’s terrific to see.
– I’ve heard the calling. The quiet, noble calling.
– Really, just really terrific.
– If I’ve served this place even half as well as the many generations of council employees of the past, I’ll consider myself a wild success.
– You seem at home here, Quentin.
– What better place is there to be? The library is more than a place for books. It’s an oasis. It doesn’t matter who you are in the library; you can come in for a chat, to read the paper, or to just stare at the floor, if that’s what you feel like. No one’s going to ask you for money, to display a permit, or anything. The library: the last haven of the twenty-first century.
– I think you’ll make a terrific assistant manager, just really terrific, really, terrific.
– I can only hope.
– It’ll be a big responsibility, having control over everyone’s files and memberships, but I have no doubt you can handle it.
The men shake hands and stand.
Quentin Biggs shows the Monmouthshire council member the way out of Abergavenny library, and returns to his post, his head held high.
The days pass quietly in here. This is how he likes it. Relishing in the anonymity of the public librarian. Putting on that mustard sweater in the morning, trimming his moustache, wiping his spectacles. The satisfaction of providing a valuable service to a community, one of the last surviving. There is no ambition in here and therefore no wasted ambition. Neither success nor failure. His job mostly consists of helping elderly people with family heritage searches on the internet, helping recovering addicts and prisoners fill out invasive application forms, and daydreaming.
This is where he belongs, always.
He passes the rest of the morning, and indeed most mornings, by making idle conversation with the elderly man whom he suspects is wealthy and lonely and looking for someone to leave his estate to. His suspicion is educated and based on the old man’s fine clothes, personalised watch, and passing mention of a career in the oil industry and several country manor houses and ungrateful estranged children. Quentin Biggs may love his job, or at least tell himself daily that he does, but it does not pay well and he likes the idea of being inheriting handsome sum to grow old on. He is as deserving of this old man’s money as anyone else is, he believes. He has listened to his boring stories and gripes every day since he has been here. He has even thought about poisoning the cup of tea he sometimes makes for him when it is cold and wet outside and the old man comes in shaking and miserable, speeding up the process, helping the old man along, because it is not like he has much left to live for anyway.
In the afternoons, a little girl comes in, right on time, every day. This girl is somewhere around fourteen years old and Quentin Biggs loathes her with his bones. He often thinks about her stepping out onto the road and being taken out by a lorry, and him being the one to make the phone call home to her parents.
She lives in an underprivileged household and has no other access to a word processor, so she finds refuge in the milky white walls of the library. Every day she comes in, goes to the computer, the same computer, number four. She logs on and fires up Word, the same document she has been working on every day after school for several months. It must be somewhere in the region of forty thousand words at this point. It is obvious what she is doing, the little bitch, despite her efforts to keep it a secret, shyly minimizing the screen whenever Quentin Biggs surreptitiously comes within reading distance.
One day she will finish it, polish it, send it to publishers and agents, and although he is sure it is derivative garbage and she is untalented and wasting her time, there is always at the back of his mind that little nerve of doubt, because who knows, maybe it will not get left to rot in unattended inbox, maybe it will get published, maybe it will be loved, maybe she will do everything he never could, in an old life.
She comes in and he watches her log in and open the document his back seizes up and he feels sick.
He rushes to the bathroom where he nearly passes out.
Are you sure you want to permanently delete all files?
If he does not think about it too much the answer to this question is easy.
In the quiet darkness of the closed library, one movement of his finger undoes it all.
At night he watches a moth trapped in the lightshade of his bedroom. The dirty creature flaps and panics, stuck in its own prison. He does not know how it got in there or how long it has been in there for.
He lies in bed, awake, looking up at his ceiling, watching the insect flap around. When he gets bored, he turns the light off, but in the darkness he can still hear it, screaming, desperately trying to escape.
The library opens and he explains the terrible news to his staff. A mysterious file corruption: all data is lost. He has tried recovering the lost files. He has been on the phone with I.T. consultants and he has been given no solutions. He has tried everything, there is no hope. They will just have to take this one on the chin. This is what computers do. They turn on you. They leave you with nothing.
His staff are perplexed, they are confused, they have questions, but they are told they will ultimately have to accept that their job today is to deliver the same piece of unfortunate news again and again to anyone looking for a file they may have saved under their personal username.
All data is lost. This is what happens.
The morning grumbles on as Quentin Biggs lays more groundwork with his retired oil engineer. At regular intervals he supplies nods and generalised positive feedback sounds to the old man’s stories, even provides an “oh boy” like whistle at appropriate moments.
Soon the fortune will be his.
At lunchtime a former crack addict stumbles in. He needs to fill in a housing benefit form and does not know where to begin. Quentin Biggs helps him fill out his name, DOB, residence, career history, and stretches it out for as long as possible, finding sanctuary in repetition.
The hum of the library, the music of his life, plays on underneath as time goes by.
Several people ask questions about their missing files and are given the scripted bromides. They shake their heads and speak of letters written to the council. All data is lost. This is what happens.
Lunch passes and Quentin Biggs’ palms sweat. He swallows air but it will not go down. His eye is fixed to the clock. School will finish at three thirty pm and then she will come, the little bitch, she will come and she will see.
He is so excited it is sick.
His home now is a one bedroom council house in the rural outskirts of the small Welsh agricultural town. He lives alone. He tells himself he likes it this way.
Each day when Quentin Biggs gets home, his ritual is to open a beer and make a roast chicken sandwich.
After watching the little bitch cry for an hour and trying to hide his erection, he trudges in through the door. He opens his beer and takes a long drawn out gulp. His high is fading, he is desperate to keep hold of it, to eke it out for as long as possible. He finishes his beer and opens another.
He gets four slices of bread and lays them flat on the kitchen counter. He looks for the butter. It is not in its usual place, in the container next to the breadbin. He looks in the fridge. There it is, resting comfortably on the shelf, cold, hard, unforgiving. He must have forgot to take it out last night. He picks it up and puts it on the counter. He takes out a knife and sticks it into the solid block, works hard to dig out a chunk. Then he tries to spread it over the bread.
The butter is hard, much too hard.
He tears chunks of the bread off, rips it apart, destroys it. The bread, the sandwich, ruined, all ruined.
He drops the knife. He starts breathing heavily.
For a few moments, his vision turns grey, his heart speeds up and he feels as if he might die there on the spot. Actually, he hopes he will.
Eventually the blackening panic subsides. His heart rate slows, his breathing calms, everything goes back to normal. Like it always does. He takes the butter, puts it in a bowl, places it in the microwave, and th –